Specialty coffee can be exclusionary. These Seattle cafes are trying to change that
On Union Coffee in the Central District is bustling with activity on a breezy spring afternoon, with owner Geetu Vailoor and barista Grace Rathbone tending to a continuous stream of customers. They chat with many of the regulars, who order cardamom rose lattes and other flavoured beverages, as well as pastries cooked on site, via masks. Looking Homeward Coffee’s local roaster Jake Deome drops in at one point to check on the bean supply and have a draw of espresso. On one of the walls, a cartoon dog on a scooter, designed by worker Felix Tran, keeps an eye on the events. Scoot Dog stickers are also available for purchase with each carefully prepared drink.
Union Coffee appears to have the same minimalist style as other current speciality coffee shops, with scales for weighing coffee, shelves stocked with bags of single-origin beans, and a variety of natural wine. Though the exact definition of speciality coffee varies, it often refers to high-quality roasts (typically lighter and scored on a particular 100-point scale) made with care by highly skilled baristas using expensive machinery. Union has a couple of those features, but it’s also a spiritual heir to veteran Seattle mainstays like Bauhaus, Espresso Vivace, and Cafe Allegro, which laid the groundwork for the city’s coffeehouse scene decades ago.
Over the last few years, speciality coffee shops have been steadily expanding across the country, attempting to shed some of the scene’s typical elitism. In 2017, Go Get Em Tiger (an infamously fussy cafe) in Los Angeles introduced playful takes on flavoured holiday drinks; Everyman Espresso has expanded to three locations in the highly competitive New York City coffee landscape with a sunny, welcoming vibe (to pair with its meticulously prepared drinks); and esteemed Big Shoulders in Chicago proudly touts a review that noted how it “ Wrecking Ball (Berkeley), Monarch Coffee (Kansas City), Little Waves (Durham), Black and White (Wake Forest, NC), and Chromatic (San Jose) are just a few instances of the approachability trend.
Union and others like it symbolise a similar, subtle transformation in the local cafe culture, which may sometimes get rooted in the past as stores in Seattle emerge from the grab-and-go needs of the epidemic. This current movement represents an amalgamation of aspects from the speciality sector that respect the science of brewing for higher consistency, but also aspires for a more inclusive culture that welcomes all customers, regardless of their knowledge of coffee’s granular aspects. While some speciality shops treat roasts like fine wine, focusing on the tasting experience above all else, Vailoor and a new generation of owners and baristas seek to establish a welcoming environment and build closer relationships with the customers they serve.